Imagine you are 80 years old. You think you are nearing the end of your life, so you wind down activities, and live day-to-day. Then you discover that you could live for another 50 years. Suddenly, you have to think about how you will fill that time. Do you feel anxious, or excited?
STBY was part of a team at Design Academy Eindhoven who helped students explore this question with elderly people during five weeks of research that we helped curate and teach, as part of a project called MyFutures. In conversations led by the students, the participants talked about how upcoming technologies, such as virtual reality, organ transplants, and robots, could extend people’s lives and change their futures.
MyFutures is a ‘research-through-design’ collaboration between TU Delft, the Design Academy Eindhoven (DAE), user-centred design agencies (including STBY), companies and the government. The aim of this collaboration is to “empower individuals to better confront their possible future, to think about them, and act toward them”.
As a part of this research, there was a five-week course in how to use speculative films as a co-creative tool to make future technologies easier to comprehend. Students had to weave together clips of experts talking about future technologies with scenes that they would conceive of, produce and film together with the participants.
At the beginning of the course, many of the participants seemed bewildered by the concepts introduced. One woman of around 70 years old, seemed very quiet and shy in the beginning, and didn’t speak much. But by the end of the course, she was really excited about virtual reality. It turned out that she never went to school, but she had always wanted a chance to go. Although she thought she would never get the chance, she realised that virtual reality could allow her to go, even without leaving her house. Her attitude was transformed by the end of the session — she was sitting up straighter, and she was much more talkative!
Speculating on our futures
Thanks to healthcare and higher quality of life, people are living longer and longer. The first people who will turn 130 years old are already among us. As a result, there is a greater proportion of elderly people in society than ever before.
In spite of their growing role in society — from their influence on elections to presence in the workplace — older people can sometimes have a pessimistic view on the future. In others’ perceptions, they might appear to be waiting out their last days, facing a slow decline, even though they still have many more days to live. Are they scared to try new things? Or just not interested anymore?
If we could help these people speculate on their future, instead of only reminiscing about the past or planning for death and illness, they may begin to think positively about their possible futures, and form new dreams, ambitions and plans. For design researchers, virtual reality is a rather new tool, but one that has a lot of potential in projects such as this to help people imagine possibilities beyond the here-and-now.
In the MyFutures course, participants were at first simply bemused by the concept of how they could use cutting-edge technologies like VR in their lives. But after we downloaded a virtual reality app and tested out a headset with them, they became much more excited. They were able to experience a world far beyond what was familiar — for example, by embracing their hobby for Star Trek and venturing to outer space. Another woman with rheumatism wanted to walk through a forest because she was no longer able to, showing that for some people, virtual reality might enable them to experience things they no longer can, due to illness or declining fitness.
But, as always, tools aren’t everything. The VR headset was just the start of an intriguing dialogue. During the MyFutures project the students and older people created a speculative film together, which explored the use of upcoming technology (like VR) in their daily (future) life. This co-creative process in a visual expression, made the future tangible and exciting for the participants — they became much more excited by the prospect of transcending time and space. Seeing the impact that VR, co-creation and using film had on the participants, makes us excited to keep pursuing this path.
The insights created with this project are helping researchers on MyFutures to refine tools they are currently developing to facilitate family discussions about the potential futures of each family member.
(Written by Zoë Dankfort).